Many people, regardless of whether or not they’re parents, have opinions on how children should be raised. That especially applies on social media, where there’s always a finger wagging and someone thinking he or she knows better. If the story of Captain Fantastic occurred in real life, the judging and lecturing would explode.
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife have decided to raise their family off the grid. And that doesn’t just mean living without TV, internet and phone, or living in the country. The six children and their parents live in the woods, deep in the Pacific Northwest. They kill wild game for their food, and books and music provide their education and entertainment.
Staying physically and mentally fit is a priority. Ben schedules “training” every day, in which each member of the family learns to defend him or herself with a crude form of martial arts, and undertakes arduous tasks such as long hikes or mountain climbing. Getting hurt is a very definite possibility out in the wild, but Ben sees such injuries as a test of character and an opportunity to learn how to survive.
Additionally, Ben’s family is extremely well-read, absorbing virtually all of the literary classics and non-fiction standards. With the former college professor, class is always in session. After someone finishes a book, Ben asks them to share their thoughts on what they just read. And they can’t get away with using a crutch like “interesting” that doesn’t really say anything. Why did they like or not the book? What was appealing or appalling about the characters? Did the author convey his or her view satisfactorily?
But is such a lifestyle truly sustainable? Did Ben and his wife expect to raise children who were intelligent, curious and self-sufficient, yet expect them to stay content living away from most of humanity for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the parents didn’t truly think this idealized existence all the way through, something that becomes increasingly clear when one of them becomes ill.
As Captain Fantastic begins, Ben’s wife already isn’t with the family. She has been institutionalized because of her bipolar disorder, a condition that the two of them thought might be improved by living away from the noise and stress of regular society. When checking in on her, Ben receives some bad news from his wife’s family: She has committed suicide.
That essentially kicks the story of the film into motion. Ben and his kids want to attend their mother’s funeral. But his father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella), holds a major grudge toward the man who took away his daughter and convinced her to live a life that most anyone would view as radical, perhaps even dangerous. (Did Ben make things worse by keeping his wife away from doctors and medicine that might have been able to help her?) If Ben appears at the funeral, Jack threatens to have him arrested.
Ben certainly doesn’t want to get thrown in jail and taken away from his kids. Though he doesn’t say it outright in the film, he’s also likely worried that his children will be taken away regardless because of how they live out in the woods. As it stands, Jack plans to file for custody of the children, believing Ben to be an unfit parent. Realizing that his children want to say a proper goodbye to their mother, while feeling the need to stand up for how he and his wife chose to raise their family, Ben decides to confront the risks and attend the funeral.
Another writer and director may have chosen to amp up the melodrama and expand the range of Captain Fantastic, bringing in society at large to weigh in on this freakish family that’s been raised out in the woods, developing virtually no social skills or ability to live in the larger world. But this is a personal story for writer/director Matt Ross (primarily known as an actor in roles such as Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley), with some autobiographical elements to it.
Ross keeps the scope of his narrative small, within the family. Each of the conflicts in the story happen between parents, between siblings, and ultimately among Ben and his own family. Ben is judged for depriving his kids of a normal life, to which he counters by demonstrating his children’s outstanding mental and physical fitness, and their practical ability to survive. How educated and self-sufficient you or your children are might be something you question while watching this movie.
Eventually, Ben has to confront the question of whether or not he and his wife made the right decision with their family. Oldest son Bo (George MacKay) wants to experience the world he’s been hidden from for most of his life. He can go to the finest universities, thanks to the tremendous, if unconventional, education his parents have provided. But he barely knows how to interact with anyone, especially women, and has no sense of popular culture. Or any culture, really, outside of their home in the wilderness.
What makes Captain Fantastic truly compelling and challenging is that it doesn’t tell the audience what to think. Both Ben and Jack are right about what they believe, and they’re also wrong in not acknowledging the other side. But if you believe the movie is casting any sort of judgment or attempting to send a message, that is likely you projecting your own personal views onto the story. And that’s not a bad thing. A movie should make you feel something and think about what you’ve watched afterwards.